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Melancholy: A New Anatomy
September 29, 2021 - March 20, 2022Free
29 September 2021 to 20 March 2022
Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford
Free admission, no booking required
from the Bodleian Libraries:
In 1621 Robert Burton, an Oxford scholar, published the first edition of his encyclopaedic book, The Anatomy of Melancholy. Four hundred years later, the Bodleian Libraries are hosting an exhibition (Melancholy: A New Anatomy) which draws parallels between Burton’s holistic recommendations for cures and contemporary research into mental wellbeing, comparing 17th-century ideas of the causes and treatment of melancholy with modern remedies for what we would now call depression.
Curated by a diverse group of academics from the University of Oxford’s Departments of Psychiatry, English and Clinical Neurosciences, the exhibition shows how Burton’s Anatomy anticipated contemporary research into the role of diet, sleep, faith, exercise, and the concept of greenspace in mental health. Burton was himself a melancholic, who used reading, research, and the writing of his book as a soothing distraction, long before our modern interest in bibliotherapy (therapeutic reading) and scriptotherapy (therapeutic writing). These two concepts are explored in the exhibition through treasures from the Bodleian’s collections, including a well-worn and bloodied copy of the Pickwick Papers in Russian, which offered comfort to a soldier in the Crimean War; the first issue of The Hydra magazine, written by, and for, the patients of Craiglockhart War Hospital, notably including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon; and the 1822 Journal of Sorrow by Mary Shelley.
Burton’s Anatomy was hugely successful, receiving five revised editions in the seventeenth century, and read for pleasure and comfort ever since. Highlights in the exhibition include a 5th edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy (published in 1638), the beautifully illustrated 17th-century Tradescants’ Orchard focusing on garden fruits, and a complete 18th-century manuscript of the Al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya, a Shia Muslim text describing the relationship between man and God.
At this time of increasingly pressured and isolated lives, when our mental health faces many challenges, Melancholy: A New Anatomy uses objects from the Bodleian Libraries to highlight common experiences and connections over four centuries. Visitors to the exhibition may be surprised to see the similarities between Burton’s suggestions to eat good food and exercise, to laugh, read, and spend time with friends, and the remedies at the forefront of mental health research today.